It’s a summer morning, sunlight flashing off the San Francisco skyline, brushing the hills of Marin and Berkeley, stippling the sweep of water in between. Just another beautiful day in the East Bay.
Ah, but how to spend it when the mood for culture strikes? You could pose, of course, with penguins at the California Academy of Sciences, wander through Matisses and Calders at the de Young, swoon in rapture at a San Francisco Symphony performance or even gaze into galaxies at the Chabot Space & Science Center.
Ho-hum, you think as you shuffle along College Avenue to La Farine for your Saturday morning pain au chocolat or morning bun, isn’t there something else, something different?
Luckily, there is. If you’re bored with the glittering smorgasbord of Bay Area offerings, and you’ve done KQED’s “Do-List” to death, you have another choice: Become a sleuth of the unusual and explore the somewhat, well, lesser “attractions” of the Bay Area.
Tucked away in unlikely locations around the Bay is a treasure trove of institutions dedicated to the preservation of iconic oddities, from a 1927 steam-operated motorcycle to an Adolf Hitler PEZ dispenser. You can walk through a life-size Barbieland, wonder at a brass lock shaped like a full-size violin and witness a potty-mouthed Teletubby toy, banished from store shelves for cheerfully telling children to “bite my butt.” That and more — all here, cached in offbeat museums scattered like jewels around the Bay. Indulge yourself by taking a break from the highbrow and immersing yourself in more pedantic plebian pleasures. Your hiatus from high culture will cost you little — and make you the envy of all the great cocktail parties.
Imagine a shiny silver horse that gallops behind glass. Picture a carnival made of toothpicks. San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique is the dream of anyone whose still has a bit of childhood stowed away somewhere in his heart. Part Hugo, part Willie Wonka, and legendary to San Franciscans who remember its spookier incarnation below the Cliff House, Musee Mecanique is a vast emporium of penny arcade games and wacky inventions designed to delight the casual visitor. Stroll along Pier 45’s Taylor Street and there at the end you’ll find it, like a pot of gold, beckoning passersby with a tinny ragtime tune and the unsettling guffaws of the famous Laffing Sal, a mannequin (more or less) that once terrified children in the funhouse at San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach and still does a serviceable job today, judging from the screams and frightened faces I met just inside the door.
Begin your visit watching the gyrations of Susie the Can-Can Girl or peering into the “XXX-rated” stereoscope (which shows a turn-of-the-century secretary knocking the stuffing out of a boss who tries to steal a kiss). Within a few minutes you’ll hear something whiz by behind you — not one of the mechanical attractions, but the owner, Dan Zelinsky. He zips around on roller skates, dangling a huge set of keys at his hip in order to keep his beloved machines in working order. Musee Mecanique is the brainchild of his father, Edward Galland Zelinsky, who passed away in 2004. “My father collected all kinds of coin-operated arcade games,” he says. “I grew up with all this cool stuff in my basement.”
The “cool stuff” includes a steam-operated motorcycle (invented in 1922 by Sacramento machinist Niles Gillenwaters) and a number of orchestrions, elaborate and beautiful machines that play music (by means of a music roll, like in a player piano) and are designed to sound like an orchestra. Zelinsky’s most sophisticated model contains, within a few square feet, a piano, two drums, a tambourine, a triangle bell and a pair of castanets.
And then there are the less-than-cool inclusions. Dropping a quarter into the 1930s “Song of the Prairie” cowboy diorama brings forth a truly sonorous symphony of fart noises. (“Best quarter I ever spent,” hooted one young man as his girlfriend walked off in disgust.)
Musee Mecanique includes many one-of-a-kind inventions, such as a huge farmhouse scene made of clay, with many moving parts, and the ominous “Mouth of Truth,” into which I stuck my hand, and, after an agonizingly long time during which various things lit up or buzzed, it spit out a veritable treatise on my personality. “You tend to be aggressive to satisfy your instincts,” it pontificated. Perhaps my instinct of self-preservation? I yanked my hand back out of its mouth.
Though Musee Mecanique contains a vast collection of antique arcade games, Zelinsky has no intention of making it an homage to a bygone era, which means it also includes air hockey, foosball and the occasional video game (“Those also have a history,” he says). As I left, I saw kids smashing air hockey pucks back and forth while, just beyond the oceanside windows, waves crashed against the pier.
The Musee Mecanique, 10 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri. and 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Sat.–Sun. and holidays, free. Pier 45 Shed A (at the end of Taylor Street), Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco, (415) 346-2000, www.museemecaniquesf.com
The Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia
Some icons of American childhood loom so large that each of us carries our own memory of its place in our youth. I was 7 when I looked over one morning during Miss Wolfe’s writing lesson and saw my arch-nemesis Karen Allen (whose hair formed a perfect flip and who had beat me by one vote for class president and whose parents bought her everything) with her shiny new bunny rabbit PEZ dispenser. There it was, perky yellow ears offset by a lovely pink plastic base. When Karen caught me staring, she smiled, extracted a slim pink candy and slipped it into her mouth.
The Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia conjures similarly strong (but hopefully happier) memories in the hundreds of “PEZheads” who come to visit the museum each year. There, in specially-built display shelves that hold each PEZ dispenser in its individual slot, they can revel in the museum’s collection of every PEZ dispenser that was ever sold, back to the first one, in 1927, which modern-day PEZ fanatics wouldn’t even recognize.
Eduard Haas, the Austrian inventor of PEZ, originally conceived of the candy as a peppermint-flavored anti-smoking aid and sold it in an Altoids-like tin box. But Haas was a shrewd businessman. He quickly grasped that the real market was children, not nicotine-addicted adults. Haas threw out the peppermint flavor, the boring tin box and began manufacturing the ultimate kid-magnet: bright plastic toys with pull-back heads that dispensed candy. Smokers could get by on Nicorette or willpower; Haas and his company switched to sugar-addicted kids instead and never looked back. Their intuition bore them out: More than three billion PEZ candies are sold in the United States each year.
If PEZ had to rely on the appeal of its candy, it would quickly go the way of Astro Pops or Bit O’Licorice. But, oh, those dispensers! From the original two characters, Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse, new PEZ characters have populated the candy shelves at the rate of about three a month. Fairy tale and Disney models of the 1950s gave way to the 1960s space-age craze with bubble-headed astronauts (owner Gary Doss’ favorite) and “space guns” that shot PEZ candies across the room. In the late 1960s, hippie-ish dispensers came out in purple, pink and lime-green with groovy lettering and “flower flavors” (though quietly retired by the early 1970s). Though PEZ seems to have lifted its thumb off the public pulse for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, it has come back with force in recent years.
“They do an excellent job of keeping current,” Doss says. “They have a close licensing relationship with Disney and Pixar, so we have PEZ dispensers from Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Bratz, Iron Man, The Avengers and Hello Kitty.” A Spiderman PEZ dispenser is on its way soon, because of the upcoming sequel, Doss says.
And if 900 PEZ dispensers aren’t enough to make you drive over right away, the museum has expanded to include classic toys and a fascinating collection of banned toys. There you can find that very bad Teletubby looking out innocently from its display shelf as if it never said anything worse than, “Eh-oh!”
The Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tue.–Sat., $3 adults, $1 seniors and children under 12, free for children age 3 and under; free first Thursday of every month. 214 California Drive, Burlingame, (650) 347-2301, www.burlingamepezmuseum.com
The Jehning Family Lock Museum
Among an upscale strip of restaurants along Mountain View’s Castro Street sits an incongruous resident: a lovely Italianate building that is stuffed to the rafters with locks and keys from all over the world. This is the one-of-a-kind Jehning Family Lock Museum.
A collection of locks, you say. Wouldn’t one want to collect whatever’s behind the locks?
Absolutely not, says museum co-owner Audrey Jehning. “Locks go back to the beginning of time,” Jehning says. “Even during the Stone Age the cavemen used boulders to lock their caves. Now we use keypads. There are millions of patents for various locks to ‘keep the bad guys out’, ” she says.
While they’ve left out the boulders, Al and Audrey Jehning have included almost every other kind of lock, padlock, bolt and fastener in their 7-year-old museum. Look on one shelf and you’ll see an early form of tire boot with cleats that dug deep grooves in the road should anyone be silly enough to try and steal the car. The museum also has a collection of “cannonball safes” — the original bank and hotel safes used in 19th-century America to protect money and jewels from bandits. The safes, inscribed with beautiful etchings, require three separate keys to open them. Those used in banks had timed locks built into the doors, ensuring safety after-hours.
Audrey Jehning believes that locks and keys reveal cultural identity. Wandering through the lock museum, it’s hard not to notice the difference between the beautiful and intricately carved brass god and goddess locks of India and the simple geometry of northern European locks. But they also reveal a nation’s shame: Hiding in the corner of a lower shelf is a small half-cuff clamped to a straight metal rod — a slave’s ankle cuff. Someone donated it to the museum not knowing what it was, Audrey Jehning says; they only found out when her husband saw the identical lock identified in a trade magazine.
Jehning Family Lock Museum, 12–5 p.m. Wed., 6–8 p.m. Thu., 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., free. 175 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 968-2285, www.jehninglockmuseum.org
Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic
In Union City is a mecca to the icon of every little girl who ever looked in the mirror and saw reflected back a perfect face and hourglass figure: Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic, a shrine for Barbie worship. Created more than 20 years ago by the irrepressible Holder, who runs marathons when she’s not running her shop, the Doll Attic contains thousands of Barbies, features a brisk online store and auction site and holds world records for highest price paid for a Barbie ($27,450 for a 1959 still-in the-box first edition) and highest price paid for a Barbie outfit (more than $12,000).
Stroll down the attic aisles and, despite being a mere mortal, you can sojourn briefly in the Elysian fields of Barbie’s perfect life. Modeled on the original cardboard structures (created especially for the Doll Attic by
Barbie-enthusiasts at Pixar and Disney studios), the museum displays are life-size reproductions of her pastel playgrounds — Barbie Goes to College, Campus Sweetshop and Fashion Barbie.
“There’s no other place like it in the world!” opines Holder.
The Doll Attic contains Barbies from the year of her birth (1959) through today and keeps an eagle-eye on the Barbies of tomorrow. On the attic’s “Hot Gossip” blog site, Holder’s list of 2012 Barbies includes a William and Kate doll set (available this fall), a lovely but lethal-looking Hunger Games Barbie and, of course, a cherry-red Christmas Barbie. Despite a rash of rumors to the contrary, Holder reports, Mattel will not be manufacturing a line of Kardashian Barbies.
Looking at the long rows of Barbies with their perfect figures and perfect accessories, one could be forgiven for wondering if there ever was a women’s movement. Countering the notion that modern women might want role models whose persona was attainable without plastic surgery, Holder holds strong to the continuing relevance of her idol.
“Her motto is, ‘Barbie can do anything – and she does,’ ” Holder says. There are Barbie doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts, paleontologists, Army captains and ambassadors. Recent iterations of Barbie have not shied from social controversy, either – there’s a pregnant Barbie (baby included) and one covered in tattoos. But Barbie’s biggest role may just be starting — she’s running for president! In August, Mattel will unleash its pink power-suited icon on America’s fractious red-and-blue political landscape, her platform shaped by web-connected fans around the world. If Mattel could only convince other countries to follow suit.
Sandi Holder’s Doll Attic, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., $5 adults, $2 children 6 and under. 33457 Western Ave., Union City, (510) 489-0221, www.dollattic.com